Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

the political groups

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The intent of this page is to provide a place where I can capture and document the many political groups that sprang up and thus influenced 19th century America. I begin by simply logging the names of a few and will elaborate with more detail over time. See also the virtual bookshelf where I am capturing books on the topic of political parties here.

American Republicans


Barnburners (also Van Burenites)

Van Buren supporters. “…Stormed out of the national convention to start the Free Soil party in 1848.” (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s )

Catholic Church

“It was indeed the Catholicism of most immigrants and the palpably growing political power of the Catholic Church, once immigrants voted in large numbers, that stimulated the initial spread of Know Nothingism. Know Nothings made the apparent perversion of American political processes by the growing foreign and Catholic participation the chief justification for their secret political action. Specific ‘aggressions’ by the Catholic hierarchy in 1853 and 1854 provided nativists with concrete evidence of a papal plot to control America. Led by Archbishop John Hughes of New York, Catholic bishops around the country began to demand ecclesiastical ownership of church property – that is, a transfer of the physical properties of Catholic churches from lay trustees to the clergy. Protestants viewed this as an attempt to increase the economic power of the Church, and when the Pope sent a special nuncio named Gaetano Bedini to persuade certain individual congregations who refused to sell to the Church, propagandists labeled Bedini the vanguard of a papal invasion. Even more menacing were the continuing efforts by the Catholic clergy to agitate for, and by Democratic legislators who represented them to introduce, laws that would stop Bible reading in public schools and obtain public funding for parochial schools. Additional evidence of the political clout of Catholics came with the increased immigrant vote for Pierce in 1852 and his appointment of the Irish Catholic Campbell to his cabinet.” (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, 161 – 162. )

  • Catholic power referred to by critics as: Papal Power, Secret Jesuitism, Political Catholicism

Constitutional Union Party


Dickinsites (see Hards, Hardshells)


Free-Soilers or Free Soil Party

F Street Mess

Named so because they boarded together on F Street (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s ).

  • David R. Atchison of Missouri, president pro-tempore of the Senate and the man who would succeed Pierce if he died because the Vice-President had died in April 1853
  • James M. Mason of Virginia, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee
  • Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, chairman of the Finance Committee
  • Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, chairman of the Judiciary Committee

Fusion Movement

Anti-Nebraska coalitions, called “People’s,” “Independent,” or “Republican” parties. (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, 150)

Hardshells (also the Hards, Dickinsites)

Led by ex-Senator Daniel S. Dickinson in 1853. (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s )


Conservative opponents of Barnburners.

Know Nothings (American Party)

  • “…Represented themselves as the “people’s party,” and they endeavored to make sure that their candidates represented the people and not the political machines.” (Holt, 167)
  • Overwhelmingly a movement of the poor and middle classes. (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, 161 )
  • “Know Nothing sympathizers described the membership as honest but poor workingmen, artisans, and mechanics, while their foes characterized them as a rabble or thugs. (Holt, Ibid.)
  • “…specifically linked the foreign and Catholic menace to the growing disgust with politicians and political parties as corrupt, tyrannical, unresponsive, and useless that had been the first manifestation of the loss of faith in the efficacy of the political process to secure republicanism.” (Holt, 163)
  • Seen “as a vehicle of reform because of its clearly expressed purpose to destroy both old parties, drive hack politicians from office, and return political power directly to the people.” (Holt, 167)
  • “It could attract initiates much more easily than it could retain members.” Membership was fluid. (Holt, 172 )
    • Holt suggests that waving enthusiasm results from the following:
      • Know Nothings took no concrete action against immigrants and Catholics as they had promised
      • “Their performance in office could not match their rhetoric.” “Inept as legislators.”
      • Many people didn’t care for the “secret machinations of the order.”
      • They used violence and lawlessness
      • Many of the old guard politicians took advantage of the movement to further their own agendas/elections.

Liberty Party


Northern Know Nothings

North Americans

People’s Parties

  • New fusion anti-Nebraska coalitions during election of 1854. (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, 150, 167. )
  • Name employed by the Republicans in Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut (1856) and Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (Holt, 175)


  • Initial meeting to organize the national Republican party held in Pittsburgh in February 1856. (Holt, 175)
  • “In many places, the Republican party was started in 1855 and 1856 specifically as a refuge for those who could not tolerate either the Democrats or the Know Nothings.” (Holt, 171)
  • “Often former Antimasons who despised the secrecy of the Know Nothings were influential in founding the Republican party, which pledged opposition to secret proscriptive societies because they were antirepublican.” (Holt, 171)
  • “With enormous skill the Republican leadership played on the various sources of discontent with the Know Nothings and exploited the republican idiom common to both parties to unite most of the Northern anti-Democratic voters in 1856 into a powerful opposition party.” (Holt, 175)
  • Sometimes and in some places, referred to themselves as “Independents.” (Holt, 175)


Silver Grays

Softshells (also the Softs)

A faction of the Democratic party led by William L. Marcy, Secretary of State under Franklin Pierce,  in 1853 (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s ), Other members included:

  • Horatio Seymour, Democratic Governor of New York. 18th Governor in office January 1, 1853 – December 31, 1854

Silver Grays

Southern Rights Party

Southern Democrats

Southern Whigs

Unionists (Union Party)

  • Local party in Pennsylvania (of the Republicans) so named because of the anti-Know Nothing connotations of the name Republican (Holt, 178)


Conscience Whigs

Eastern Whigs

Northern Whigs – extinct by 1856

Southern Whigs

Wide Awake Clubs

“…marching societies whose members paraded the streets in uniform with lanterns burning. Many of the original Know Nothing lodges had been called Wide Awakes, and these militaristic societies attracted the young and the poor, workingmen and mechanics, precisely the kind of men who had rushed to the Know Nothing lodges in 1854 and 1855. ” (Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, 176. )

Written by Rene Tyree

February 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm

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